Last weekend was Labor Day weekend. The the official closing of summer, or Bummer City for just about everyone, unless you live near or south of the equator.
Cue the music… “Closing Time” by Semisonic begins to play in the background. Children all over the country are crying as their parents put away their slip-n-slides and kiddie pools. Beach towels are packed in storage. All public pools were drained simultaneously Monday evening. Summer camps everywhere have fallen silent, their occupants all returned to school/college/real jobs weeks ago. The summer cabins are boarded up, their plastic covered prison mattresses are stacked neatly in storage, eagerly awaiting the opportunity to be peed on again by little Jimmy during his first week at summer camp next year, which will be at least another 7-8 months. Deep depressing sigh.
I was a summer camp kid.
I loved packing up all my worldly belongings and stuffing them into my camp trunk and taking them away with me to the whole different universe that was sleep-away camp. (I still have that trunk. It still smells like camp fire!)
So the summer when I was 10, when my mom asked me if I wanted to go to summer camp, I peed my pants. I was finally going to have my own adventures like Budnick, Donkeylips, Ronnie Pinsky, Z.Z., and the rest of the gang from Salute Your Shorts!
The particular camp I went to had several different “specialty” camps. Sports camp, band camp, fishing camp, horse camp… I was an “arts camper.”
The sports campers were the jocks. The band campers were local high school bands who spent their whole day practicing. Fishing campers for some reason always had the surfer/burn-out vibe. They had the coolest counselor ever, Tracy Ray, who reminded me of Morgan Freeman, and they pretty much did just about whatever they wanted – Including staying up really late and night fishing on the lake!
I went to arts camp every year for 5 years. I never really knew what the arts campers’ persona was… I guess we were the pre-hipsters?
Our area was in the walk-out basement of the conference building. There was a secret door that lead to the Nature Center next door, which we thought was amazing. That was where they kept the snakes and turtles. You know… naturey things.
Our counselor was Phil. He was an early 20-something long-haired, Birkenstock-wearing, liberal arts college student. He greeted us each morning cheerfully wearing his baja hoodie (which I later learned were also called “drug rugs”) while clenching a Winnie the Pooh mug full of coffee. He was like the female version of Janice from the Muppets.
His favorite band was Phish. I know this because he wore a Phish t-shirt almost every day and the only cd we were allowed to listen to my first summer was Hoist. If you’re not familiar with Phish, they can be summed up easily in one sentence: The lead singer plays a vacuum.
Phil’s helper was Cindy. She was a junior counselor, and was probably in high school, maybe a senior? She also stayed in my cabin. She looked a lot like Angela Chase from My So-Called Life. But she didn’t take shit from anyone. If you acted like a butt hole, she told you. She wore cut-off jean shorts with leggings and flannel shirts. Her hair was fire-engine red. She had this dry, sharp wit about her. (Think Janeane Garofalo.) I was enamored with her.
In arts camp we did just about everything. We made baskets, made things out of clay & popsicle sticks, painted, drew, made friendship bracelets, lanyards and key chains. We also tie-dyed everything that wasn’t nailed down.
By the last year I went to camp, my family no longer owned anything white that would accept Rit dye. I also had so many handmade lanyard key chains; I probably could have supplied a Chinese key chain factory through my college years. (My husband actually has one on his key ring at this very moment!)
I sported about 50 friendship bracelets on each of my wrists AND ankles. And before I started middle school, I had to cut out a chunk of my hair that one of my fellow campers had put one of those thread hair wraps in.
After lunch, during the blazing heat of the day, we were allowed to go do other activities if we wanted to. Things like shooting your fellow cabin-mate at the archery range… But we usually opted to stay with Phil and Cindy and lay on the cold cement floor, listening to Phish and pretend like we were cool.
The evenings were the best part of camp. This is usually when everyone at camp went down to the lake and went swimming.
The lake was massive and was really clean and clear. We even had a resident snake named Ethel (which I’m sure where in fact several different snakes). I imagine naming the snake was a way to take some of the horror out of the possibility of swimming with serpents. There were a lot of city kids that had never seen a snake in real life.
We even had a “Polar Bear Swim” at dawn every morning, which was probably the most fun!
The swim system was pretty serious business. When you got out of the water, you had to take a little metal chip with your camper number off the IN board and put it back on the OUT board. This is how they kept track of how many kids were IN the water. Every so often, they did a head count to make sure everyone was safe and accounted for.
I remember once we were frantically all called out of the water. Someone was missing. We all stood on the beach for what seemed like forever as the counselors recounted everyone at least 5 times before they finally formed “the chain” and started walking through the water looking for the missing kid.
Later in life I realized that the counselors probably all had the scenes from Friday the 13th running through their minds that day.
Right about the time all the counselors were in the water with their clothes on, the “missing” kid came skipping down the stairs from the commissary with a Drum-Stick ice cream cone and asked someone what was going on… He forgot to move his chip.
In the evenings, sometimes we’d have a big camp fire where we did skits, sang corny camp songs etc. Before it got too late, they’d ceremoniously extinguish the fire and usher us quietly back to our cabins where we had a little while to shower and wind down before lights out.
Actually sleeping at camp was always near impossible.
If you haven’t had the pleasure, thank your lucky stars that you’ve never had to experience the banter of 10 pre-teen/teenage girls’ banter at bed time at summer camp. No topic was taboo… it was kind of like a junior version of The View. I don’t know how the counselors refrained from strangling us with our own tie dyed shirts.
Eventually the lights would go out and each of us would lay quietly in the dark, sweating to death trying to figure out how to go to sleep with the sound of mosquitoes buzzing in our ears. (Our cabins were four wood walls with big screened windows on every wall.) Every night at camp for a lot of kids was like the night before Christmas, it was hard to close your eyes and block out the excitement.
I had a counselor one year who would play an Enya tape every night to help lull everyone to sleep. In 1994 I had never heard of Enya before in my life, and thought it was kind of weird.
At the end of that week of camp, on the last night we were all talking about our favorite parts of the week. We each agreed we liked listening to Enya at night. We realized each of us had been lying awake each night until Orinoco Flow came on. I would later hear that song on the radio in the car with my mom and she cracked up that her fourth grader knew the words.
Another sleeping adventure was the “Overnight” night at camp. One night out of your week at camp, you got to pack a bag, your sleeping bag, pillow and hike somewhere into the wilderness where you spent the night. There were a few different locations, the pioneer cabin, the back side of the lake, the frontier ranch… or simply just the damn woods.
Overnights were always interesting and were a guarantee that nobody would be sleeping that night. One time
at band camp, in the woods, the counselors accidentally burned wood with poison ivy and sent some kid with a horrific allergy to the hospital after he inhaled the poison ivy ash into his lungs.
My overnights were just about anything but “fun.” My first one was in the woods. At the beginning of the evening someone ripped a giant hole in the side of our tent. Tough turkey! We had to sleep in it anyway. It was still about 85 degrees with 95% humidity than night and in the middle of the woods, there was no escaping the mosquitoes.
To top it off… the week before I went to camp, I made the mistake of watching an episode of Unsolved Mysteries about a serial killer who rode trains into a girl scout camp and murdered everyone then dumped their bodies in their sleeping bag in a ditch.
Right about the time I recalled the details of that episode, a train horn sounded a few hundred feet away. I sat up and looked out our tent as I watched the train clickety-clack right on by…
I spent that entire night balled up in my sub-zero-arctic-grade sleeping bag, sweating and hyperventilating.
When I entered my teen years, I decided I wanted to be a counselor one day. So I started helping out as a junior counselor with day campers. It was a lot of fun, until one day…
We had a group of special needs kids at day camp. They were a lot of fun. Except this one kid. He was genuinely mean and hateful and would regularly beat the tar out of his day-care helpers. To avoid being maimed, I decided to just steer clear of him.
One day, everyone was swimming at the lake and he was just sitting on the beach. Everyone tried to get him to jump in, but he refused. Finally I felt bad and decided to go over and offer him some words of encouragement or whatever the hell I thought counselors were supposed to do.
When I got over to where he was sitting, he had his towel in his lap. I was all like, “Hey, buddy! What’s goin on? Swimming is super fun! Let’s go!” And then I realized he wasn’t wearing pants…
I don’t know which was worse; realizing what he was doing or having to explain to the other counselors why he didn’t want to swim that day.
Turns out I didn’t really want to be a counselor! That was my last week at day camp.
I went back to camp once more after that in 1998, which was the summer before my freshman year in high school. But we didn’t stay at the main camp. Two counselors loaded up about 14 teenagers in the camp van and headed for West Virginia where we went white water rafting, rock climbing and rappelling for a week.
I shared a one-man tent with another girl, Diane (who I actually kept in touch with until college). We floated down the New River in our life jackets. I free fell from a rope off a 200 ft cliff while rappelling with nobody below to belay me, I nearly crashed to my death due to the fact that the rope was burning me through my leather gloves because I was going too fast. Our counselor jack-knifed the U-Haul trailer attached to our van and busted out the back window of the van. We swam in some backwoods swimming hole on the river with a bunch of mountain hippies and their 200 naked children.
It was an amazing trip and was the first time I’d ever been out of the state without my parents. That was probably the grandest grand finale to my camp years.
But I tell my friends and family who have kids now, send your kids to camp! I learned to make a fire, put up a tent, to cook, to clean! I mastered a canoe, a kayak, a horse and even people… I learned how to make friends, how to fight fair and most importantly how to make up with them and move on!
I learned that sometimes life is dirty, covered in bugs and sweat and that there is no such thing as a “best” way to tie-dye a shirt do things!